Social Identity in Organized Storytelling

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Social Identity in Organized Storytelling

If you were present at an organized storytelling event, you would no doubt hear performers recount how they discovered that they had become storytellers. These narratives are not as simple as they might seem, since they involve ongoing perceptions of social identity by both tellers and listeners. In this essay, I explore some of these stories to reveal how they express artistic and social decisions. I confine my inquiry to organized storytelling, which is a formal rather than a casual event.2 The term "professional storyteller" is widely used to describe performers at such events. I find this term problematic, since not all tellers depend on storytelling as their source of income, as we will see in some of the accounts included in this essay.

Storytelling events are, as Robert Georges states, social and communicative, whether they take place in traditional or organized contexts. His inclusive statement offers an effective position for examining organized storytelling.3

There is nothing especially authentic or traditional about the messages of storytelling events generated by the actions of the nonliterate or the preliterate, for storytelling events constitute one kind of communicative event within the continua of human communication and one kind of social experience within the framework of social interrelationships among people, irrespective of their relative social, educational, and economic statuses (Georges 1969: 323).

Storytelling in all of its contexts is a dynamic experience in which participants assume social identities as tellers and as listeners. In organized storytelling the social roles of tellers and listeners are often more rigidly defined than in casual telling: Quite simply, those identified as storytellers perform, often on a stage separating them from listeners; those designated as audience members listen without interrupting. Organized events may take the form of hour-long concerts featuring a few tellers, or festivals with dozens of performers.

The social and artistic dynamic of these events is not unlike that of traditional narration as we see in a statement by folklore scholar Robert Adams in his description of a Japanese narrator:

In order for an individual to become identified in his community as storyteller, he must have sufficient opportunity to practice the craft, both in order to perfect his technique and to gain the recognition that only comes from wide exposure to an entire community. (Adams 1972: 355).

Adams underlines social identity as a dual process, an ever emergent perception that evolves as narrators have the opportunity to participate in events. Because the scope of this essay does not permit a full examination of both the individual and social aspects of identity formation, I concentrate on the process from the viewpoint of the tellers. However, the responses of those cited here reveal how their self-definitions arise in social settings.

Self definition is central to artistic development. In the case of organized storytelling there is often a confused sense of what it means to be called, or to call oneself, a storyteller. The term is vague enough to cover a multiplicity of performance arts: reciting memorized pieces or reading from books, relating personal anecdotes, telling and parodying folktales, doing one-person drama, mime, dance, puppetry, or stand-up comedy. I have been curious to learn what stages tellers mark as memorable in the process of their development from telling stories casually, as we all do, to taking on an identity as a storyteller.

Not surprisingly, storytellers communicate their formative experiences in narrative form. Joseph Sobol, who interviewed almost 100 American tellers, calls these stories "vocational narratives" (Sobol 1994). He claims that experienced tellers have at least one, and usually more, stories that mark the stages of their conscious development as performers. …